Obama to Announce Afghanistan Troop Drawdown Numbers

Tensions high between Pentagon and White House over much-anticipated decision.

June 07, 2011, 5:11 PM

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2011— -- President Obama will announce on Wednesday his much anticipated decision on drawing down troops in Afghanistan.

After the announcement Wednesday, the president will travel Thursday to Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the first to deploy to Afghanistan. President Bush visited there less than a year after the war started.

Military sources tell ABC News' Martha Raddatz they hope the initial drawdown number is small, but that they do not know what the president's decision is yet.

Soon-to-be-retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on his final tour of Afghanistan earlier this month, warned that it would be "premature" to make any significant changes to the military campaign in Afghanistan before the end of the year or until the United States can say that "we've turned the corner here in Afghanistan."

The White House, on the other hand, continues to argue that the cuts in the numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be "real."

Even if the Pentagon and White House agree on the number, Gates' public dissent makes it difficult for the president to sell that number to his supporters, who are getting increasingly agitated over the growing cost of the war.

Some reports have suggested that 5,000 combat troops may be brought home in July, with roughly an additional 5,000 by the end of the year -- but no confirmed numbers have been released.

There are currently about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, so the withdrawal could be less than 10 percent, a number that is already riling up Obama's liberal base.

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said he wants to see 15,000 U.S. troops out by December, and other Democrats have also said they want to see a significant withdrawal.

"I think Democrats want to see and what I think the American people want to see is a shift from the U.S. playing the dominating role in Afghanistan to a significant and early transfer of responsibility to the Afghan people and certainly I think the end of the year, a significant, substantial draw down would accommodate that objective," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told ABC's Top Line.

This is not the first time in recent years the White House is finding itself at odds with the Pentagon over the number of troops in Afghanistan. In 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recommendation for a troop surge received a cool reception in Washington, even though the president eventually approved it, at a cost of $36 billion.

What's different now is the lack of public support for the longest war in U.S. history.

A record two-thirds -- or 64 percent -- of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting, a steep rise from 44 percent in late 2009, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll published in March.

Nearly 80 percent of independents said Obama should withdraw a "substantial number" of troops from Afghanistan this summer and barely more than a quarter felt the war is worth its costs.

What the president may have working in his favor is that the war falls well below the economy and employment on Americans' agenda, which could make it easy for him to sell the drawdown numbers, even if his liberal base is unhappy with them.

"It's difficult to turn that into a winning issue for Democrats because you're criticizing a Democratic president by doing it. You're going to get continued tepid support for the war and a desire to see a more rapid drawdown from Democrats, but are they going to make that the top of their agenda when you've got ... other issues looming?" said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department policy planning staff member. "I'd say the political space is there for the president to take if he wants it and there are reasons to think that he might."

The change in leadership is also expected to be a game changer. Incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is a seasoned Washington insider who understands the dynamics of Beltway politics. Gates, though tremendously influential in policy planning debates, was considered by many to be an administration outsider. Though he worked that aspect in his favor, it often put him at odds with the officials in the Obama administration.

"He [Panetta] definitely is more of a Democratic party insider, so he's got more of a commitment to the Democratic base and more of a sensibility for Democratic politics and is probably more sensitive to that certainly than Secretary Gates," Markey said.

Panetta's record also has many wondering if the former CIA head has bought into the argument of an expansive military in Afghanistan.

"Panetta in Iraq was a strong proponent of the idea that you need to give the Iraqis a timeline in order to make them prepared for the drawdown and my guess is he will have similar feelings about Afghanistan," said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and former executive director of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. "I think Panetta might be a little bit more hard-nosed about this idea of making the Afghans stand up to their responsibilities."

But Panetta will have to deal with the realities on the ground as well. Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, echoed Gates' sentiments earlier this month, issuing a warning that there are "consequences" to cutting down troops in the war-torn country.

"It is ultimately the president's decision. And of course ... we need to have congressional support. But they also need to understand consequences," Petraeus said in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer.

But both Gates and Petraeus declined to say whether the United States is winning the war in Afghanistan, only commenting that the country is "making progress."

That could be a tough sell for the public in the long term, especially as the cost factor looms large in debt and deficit debates.

ABC's Jim Sciutto and Martha Raddatz contributed to this report.

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